It stands to reason, or it should come as no surprise to learn, that the best and the worst restaurant reviews are the easiest to write. Plenty of examples of both can be found on this blog, from the jaw-dropping perfection of the reborn Roganic and rural idyll of the Parkers Arms to the filth-strewn dining hall of JRC Global BUffet and the cynically grim Playboy Club, all those reviews pretty much just fell onto the page. This dish was fantastic, this was terrible; here we had the time of our lives, here we sulked home poor and depressed. Easy.
More difficult is anything that falls inbetween those two extremes. When the food, for no very obvious reason, is just a bit... dull. Somewhere you end up not hating it but not loving it either, and leave with a vague sense of disappointment. Somewhere that you'd not rush to return to, but that if you heard someone else enjoying it a lot more, you wouldn't be surprised either. Finding anything insightful to say about places in this category can be torture; and what's worse is that there are so bloody many of them.
But there is a category of restaurant even more troubling than that. The only places more difficult to write up than the mediocre or unmemorable is the mediocre or unmemorable where everyone involved is so unbelievably nice and friendly and enthusiastic that the idea of not being able to reward their efforts with a glowing review makes me genuinely queasy.
Here we go anyway. On paper, Minnow is doing everything right. It's a cosy, comfortable little bistro on the edge of Clapham Common, a few doors down from the Dairy, serving a short, attractive menu of seasonal British dishes for a sensible amount of money. Yes, it's the kind of thing you may have seen before but London will never have enough friendly, independent restaurants serving seasonal food - this is what we're rightly famous for, and from St. John to Quality Chop House to, well, the Dairy - and each new addition to the fold is to be welcomed, regardless of how successfully it turns out. God knows it's hard enough opening any restaurant these days.
I so wanted Minnow to be good. I live about 20 minutes' walk away, for one thing. But from the first bite of ho-hum house sourdough weirdly served with whipped butter and drizzled with olive oil, it was clear we were going to have very different ideas about what made a good dinner.
Oysters were cool and fresh and contained plenty of brine, but the mignionette alongside was weirdly sweet and not acidic enough and just didn't work at all. For a second oyster I asked for a slice of lemon instead, which they provided happily and quickly, which somehow just made me feel more guilty.
An unordered extra snack of crisp fried kale and sugared nuts was probably the nicest single thing we ate all evening, all colour and crunch and plenty of seasoning. I love what baking/frying does to kale, but then I like raw kale too - especially the way the frills in the leaves hold sauces and dressings.
I therefore wasn't too distressed to see yet more crisp fried kale appear alongside some scallops in my starter proper, but it did make me think, if they knew the starter I'd ordered came with kale, why give me extra kale as a snack as well? Perhaps because the kale was the most interesting bit of the scallop dish, the seafood being underseasoned and the bacon jam tasting weirdly not much of bacon at all, but more like a strange, cold, onion chutney.
A generous mound of soft, lovely white crab meat was enough to redeem another starter, although it came hiding under a soft cracker thing which defied reason or explanation. The provided dressing was thick with dark soy and far too powerful, and was largely avoided.
Cassoulet should be a thick, salty jumble of sausage and beans and meat and herbs, generous of form and flavour. I'm afraid the version at Minnow was a seriously wan affair, the confit rabbit tasting of cotton wool, the sauce tasting of little more than tinned bean juice, and the handful of tiny pieces of sausage doing nothing to season or excite. I'm afraid this was a seriously disappointing dish, made more disappointing by the rememberance of cassoulets past.
Hake was better, thanks to a beautifully cooked bit of fish with a nice crisp skin, although the less said about the strange pool of insipid blitzed greenery it sat in the better. "Parsley broth" sounds like it could be nice, doesn't it? This didn't taste much of parsley, and wasn't much of a broth.
Sides didn't impress either, sadly. Chips were soggy and orange (cooked too slowly? Who knows) and the truffle flavour largely absent. Cabbage in anchovy butter seemed to be missing the anchovy element, too, seemingly consisting of little more than charred cabbage absolutely drenched in butter way past the point of edibility.
Normally after a succession of such underwhelming dishes we would cut our losses and leave, but everyone from the chefs in the open kitchen to the amenable serving staff were all just so bloody nice that I was desperate to find something to be positive about other than the crisp kale. Unfortunately, coffee creme caramel wasn't set, and lemon curd sandwiched inbetween two discs of shortbread was absolutely no more than the sum of its parts. Even the (raspberry?) sorbet seemed subdued. So that was that. We paid up and left.
So look, I'm really sorry, Minnow, really I am. Maybe it isn't you, maybe it's me. Maybe I ordered badly or you were having an off day, or I just don't "get" what you're trying to do. But you or I can't escape the fact that a few doors down the Dairy is doing this kind of thing at a whole other level of ability and finesse, and are charging very similar prices for doing so. And next time I'm in Clapham Common, hungry for seasonal Modern British food and £80 in my pocket, it's the Dairy that will be getting my hard earned, not their neighbour, no matter how friendly the welcome will no doubt be. In the end, glittering service, and crisp kale, can only get you so far. 5/10
Doesn't time fly? It seems like only yesterday I was sitting down to a £7 carvery in South Croydon, eyeing the mystery meats under the hot lamps suspiciously and expecting the worst, certain that it would all, as these public votes usually do, end in tears.
And yet, as you might remember, Toby Carvery was actually perfectly fine - not anywhere I'd rush to revisit but the food was edible, it was certainly cheap, and the service was - incredibly - better than many £100/head restaurants in central London I've been to.
The point is, these public vote restaurants don't necessarily have to be complete torture. If you enjoyed reading about a not-entirely-terrible all-you-can-eat carvery in Croydon then imagine how much more entertaining and rewarding a review of Sat Bains, or Le Gavroche, or Raby Hunt would be! You'd like to read about those, too, wouldn't you? Wouldn't you? Please?
Rules, as ever:
1. I can't have reviewed the restaurant before (have a quick Google if you're unsure)
2. It has to be either in London or easily accessible from London (I'll get on a train but I'm not flying to Athens)
3. Please check the restaurant you want to vote for hasn't already been added before you add it yourself.
Voting closes 5pm on Thursday; I think 3 days is long enough to gather a representative sample size.
In common with most people with a regular exposure to it, I have a love-hate relationship with our nation's rail network. I love nothing more than jumping on an intercity of a weekend and travelling up North, sailing over a Victorian viaduct in a single-carriage Pacer on the way to an undiscovered part of the country and visiting an idyllic country gastropub. I even quite enjoy the inevitable 3 hours at a rain-battered station in a field for the one train a day back to London; it's all part of the adventure.
Unfortunately, I also have to commute, so I see our overstretched, overpriced transport system at its worst as well. And so although I do enjoy travelling by train, it helps to keep a certain reserve of stoicism to hand for when events, to put it politely, go tits up. And so it was on Saturday on the 1h45m journey from Charing Cross to Sturry where our 8-car Southeastern train had not a single functioning toilet, something that became a rather more pressing issue once we'd polished off the bottle of cava we'd brought along for the ride. We hopped painfully into the Fordwich Arms with mere moments to spare.
You'll be pleased to hear, then, that lunch at this handsome 1920s brick building is absolutely worth any amount of pain to get there. From start to finish, from the first nibble of cruditées to the final flourish of dessert, this is a restaurant that beams with energy and talent, and with the generosity of spirit to serve food that wouldn't be in the least out of place in the most heavily gilded and tableclothed temples of fine dining at prices that make you seriously worry for the future legitimacy of the business.
But let's leave the number-crunching to them; we're here to enjoy ourselves. Like lots of great restaurants, the menu reads so well it's almost impossible to make a sensible decision about what to order, so you'll probably end up doing what we did and consuming one of everything from the snack menu. Oysters arrived first, lean and cool and with a good chunky mignonette.
Foie gras doughnuts, fresh from the oven, exploded into a kind of warm foie bisque in the mouth, an absolutely heavenly experience.
These pretty things contained a silky-smooth tarama, a slice of pickle, and were topped with Caviar farmed from British sturgeon so you can imagine how completely addictive they were. I think given a table full of these or the foie gras dumplings I don't think I could have stopped until I'd put myself in hospital.
More tarama - or rather oak-smoked cod's roe - came with a selection of lively, and artfully arranged, garden vegetables. Though the roe was lovely - perfectly seasoned and full of seafood flavour - the real stars of this dish were the veg, which somehow tasted better than any radish, carrot and endive I've had the pleasure of trying in a long while.
Westcombe Cheddar tartlets had that same perfect temperature of the foie - warm, but not piping hot, and dissolved in the mouth into a divine cheesey soup. And again, left alone in a room full of these I would not have emerged with a fully functioning set of organs.
We were also brought a mini selection of house-cured meats, which could easily hold up against any top-quality Italian produce you could name.
By this point, it was abundently clear we were in safe hands, and we would be able to relax and let the rest of the afternoon sail by in serene, Sancerre-soaked bliss. A starter of chicken, artichoke and goat's curd was a stunning thing, meaty and fresh, smooth and crunchy in all the right places and presented with an artist's eye.
Confit potato didn't quite live up to the standards set by the Quality Chop House version - what on God's green earth would? - but did still impress with a clever light buttermilk dressing and some nice smoky charred spring onion.
Crab with pickled cucumber and sea herbs was essentially faultless - just the right amount of brown meat to enrich the white, seasoned well and topped with salty seaside greens, it was as elegant as it was rewarding.
Mains continued the theme. Dexter beef, tender and medium-rare and with a subtle aged flavour that added interest without overwhelming funkiness, came with sticks of celeriac and gravy- (sorry, "beef jus"-) soaked spinach.
And suckling pig had some pieces of belly presented with puréed carrot and prune, whilst in a separate copper pan two pieces of unbelievably lovely somethingorother, skin as delicate as rice paper, flesh inside soft and powerfully flavoured, sat on a bed of smoked hay. It was enough to send us all giddy.
Desserts I can only assume tasted as good as they look from my photos, because I'm afraid we were all a bit hysterical by this point, from the sheer overwhelming quality of the food mainly but, yes, also more than a little drunk. I seem to remember my brioche being soaked in something boozy, but that could just as well have been me. And I'm pretty sure the "Fordwich snickers" (lower case 's', in case the Mars lawyers start taking notice) went down well too, with its irresistable combination of caramel, chocolate and praline.
Before we rolled out into the crisp Kentish air, an insanely reasonable £87/head lighter each for what had been by anyone's standards a magnificent display of Modern British sourcing and technique, I couldn't resist asking head chef Dan Smith, who had emerged briefly from the kitchen, how he manages to achieve all these frills and fireworks at such relatively low price points. It seems largely to be a concession to grumpy locals who flooded Tripadvisor with comments in the vein of "what happened to my £9.50 roast" and "no more jacket potatoes, just overpriced fancy dinner". It's difficult enough launching a new restaurant these days, with food inflation and staffing shortages to deal with, but to be risking all that only to find yourself fighting to convince the very people you need to keep your business afloat must have been particularly depressing.
Look, I love an unreconstructed spit-and-sawdust pub every bit as much I'm sure as your average Fordwich local. I can particularly recommend the lovely Unicorn, 5 min from Canterbury West station, for a quick pint of Kentish Pip cider while you're waiting for the convenience(s)-free train back to London. Fordwich Arms has a bar area, and nice open log fires and a beer garden but no, it's not serving fish and chips and burgers and bloody burritos because it's not a "normal" pub - it's unashamedly and undeniably a fine dining pub, and to pretend every boozer in Britain has to do exactly the same thing and please exactly the same set of people is neither practical nor desirable.
So with any luck over time the Kentish locals will realise what an utter gem they have on their doorstep and will realise they can still go a thousand other places for their sub-£10 roasts and salt and vinegar crisps if that's what they want. What's so much rarer is food as remarkable as served at the Fordwich Arms, easily one of the most exciting new openings of the last few years and, for more regular readers of this blog, yet another reason to get on the train from London. I hope yours has toilets. 9/10
Being a fish and chip fan in London is hard, and you become wearily used to disappointment. Soggy old fish kept warm for too long in hot cabinets, batter too thick, batter too thin, chips too skinny, chips too fat, and the worst crime of all, the one truly unforgivable fish and chip violation, crushed minted garden peas instead of mushy peas. You're more likely than not to suffer one of the above list in your search for a decent fix in London, and the chances of you finding anything as good as even the most second-tier chippie up in Southport, or Blackpool, or Whitby, are pretty much nil.
So I was visiting United Chip more out of hope than expectation. I was also desperately trying to keep an open mind after a press release boasting an interior of "millennial pinks and soft greys... that linger in the memory" and of putting a "unique spin on a tired concept". Listen, mate, fish and chips is not a "tired concept". It's just that nobody south of Watford knows what the bloody hell they're doing with it. What we're waiting for isn't to match our dinner with craft beer in a "contemporary and vibrant" space but for someone - anyone - within Zone 6 to just do it properly for once.
How annoying, then, that United Chip turned out to be really rather good. Not the Swan Southport good, not Senior's Blackpool good, but good, and in London, quite frankly I'll take good. Yes, there are annoyances; the communal seating, the soundtrack of Morrissey's most recent "obnoxious dickhead" period, the fact that all the food is served in takeaway pizza boxes whether you're eating in or not. But they appear to know what makes good fish and chips, and how to achieve it, which puts them head and shoulders above most anywhere else in town.
It's also pretty good value. A "small" cod and chips is £7.50, and it really isn't that small at all. The fish was cooked perfectly, in a crisp, delicate batter and boasted lovely bright white, flaky flesh. Chips had a good crunch and were nice and soft inside, and despite being piled up inside a cardboard box managed to keep their texture 'till the last one was hoovered up. Doused in salt and malt vinegar, this was more than acceptable F&C work.
So, a "unique spin on a tired concept"? Not really. This was very solidly traditional fish and chips, done well, albeit served in a self-consciously "branded" room alongside craft beers and a selection of silly sauces. It won't be nirvana for anyone, least of all those lucky enough to pay regular visits up north, but it's guaranteed to be better than your local London pub's version, and possibly even cheaper, too. Oh, and the mushy peas? I'm afraid I didn't try them, but am assured they're proper, and don't involve garden peas or mint or crushed anything. And that alone gives me reason to return. 7/10
After another ho-hum meal recently at somewhere that receives nothing but unqualified praise from almost everyone else that eats there (no, I won't name it, at least not today), it got me thinking about how there's a certain element of subjectivity implicit in almost every restarant recommendation, no matter how enthusiastically offered.
We are all of us different, and have different priorities when it comes to spending our money on dinner, and as much as anywhere can be stress-tested and fine-tuned to be as close to the ultimate dining experience as possible, the fact is no one place can please everyone. I'm thinking of a friend I confidently packed off to Quality Chop House only to have them moan about the uncomfortable seating and "weird chips" (I mean, honestly), or even my own experience as seemingly the only sentient being in town not to fall completely in love with Black Axe Mangal. Such is life's rich tapestry.
So this post comes with a disclaimer. I make no secret of the fact that this kind of food happens to chime exactly with what I'm looking for from a meal, and Simon Rogan's style of cooking is everything I find exciting and rewarding about eating out. I was always going to like the latest incarnation of Roganic, and trying to pretend it's any kind of surprise that I'm now gushing about one of the best meals I've ever eaten in London would be disengenuous at best.
But I'm equally convinced there are countless others out that will find Roganic every bit as thrilling as I did. Trying to describe it in too terrestrial a way threatens to spoil some of the magic; "local and seasonal" is too glib - everyone from your local pub to the contestants on Masterchef are cooking local, seasonal food these days. Rogan's cooking is like eating the seasons themselves, like going on a country walk and plucking fruit and berries from the trees, albeit fruit and berries in the form of exquisitely crafted preserved raspberry mini-tartlets dusted with beetroot powder (above).
It's the kind of food that no matter how dazzling the technique or unusual the ingredient (there's nobody more likely to introduce you to an obscure unpronouncable herb or foraged berry than Rogan), the results always make absolute sense, and flatter your expectations of what good food is even if you don't entirely understand how. Obviously flavour comes first - he wouldn't be much of a chef if it didn't - but it's more than that, it's a complete mastery of what people will expect from a meal like this, but then with something else, a touch of extra fairy dust. Like with these little parcels of beef wrapped in pickled kohlrabi, beautiful and bite-sized, which deliver a kind of Asian-influenced tartare effect before an astonishing woodsmoke flavour appears and lifts the whole thing to another level entirely.
A bowl of fermented cabbage kombucha managed to walk that clever line between sweetness, bitterness and vegetal flavour. It not only performed its advertised role as a palate cleanser admirably, but managed also to beguile with a further set of mysterious aromatics, tantalisingly just out of reach of identification, but delightful nontheless.
Next a dish wholly unsatisfactorily described as a "mushroom broth". I mean, technically it was a mushroom broth, insofar as it contained a broth made out of mushrooms, but of course this being Roganic it was a bewilderingly complex liquid, dark with countless enigmatic herbs and essences, with a smoked quail's yolk underneath round it out with an irresistable layer of silky dairy.
If ever a vegetable has the power to carry a main course without having you pining wistfully for protein it's salt-baked celeriac, which even in lesser hands is a dense, richly flavoured root - a highlight of dining in the winter months. Needless to say, Roganic's version is exemplary, matched with a light sauce made I think from whey, and with crunchy grains and crisp-fried enoji mushrooms for texture.
You'll have probably got the gist of the story by now. Everything Roganic do is technically impressive, immaculately presented and - most importantly - profoundly rewarding, not just enjoyable but offering an extra quantity of intellectual stimulation. Fresh crab meat, fluffy and sweet, came on a bed of smoky grilled cabbage and topped with translucent slivers of crisp chicken skin, all of which combined like God's own surf and turf. This, though, was then dressed with a light sauce made out of ramsons (preserved wild garlic) - that all-important sprinking of fairy dust.
Hay-aged duck is, just as in the mothership l'Enclume, the centerpiece of the meal at Roganic. Boasting a stunning intense flavour highlighted by a judicious selection of preserved roots and berries, I was willing to overlook the slight disappointment of a rather flabby skin and make the most of the fireworks elsewhere, not least an impossibly smooth celeriac purée.
In most restaurants, a pre-dessert would be welcome but forgettable, something for you to push about while the kitchen plated the puddings. This, a sorbet made from yellow beetroot and buttermilk, was a talking point in itself, packed full of mysterious citrus notes (no idea) and dressed with something called oxalis. That cute little wooden bowl was left absolutely clean.
This abstract arrangement of what they called "burned milk" (presumably a kind of custard spread out and baked into crisps but good lord, don't ask me) came perched upon the most insanely rich ice cream/frozen yoghurt and surrounded by at least blackcurrant but also another syrup of luminescent green who-knows-what. One of the hallmarks of a Rogan dish is how they'll often look as dazzlingly beautiful after you've finished eating them, the dabs and swirls of irridescent colour, than before you take your first bite.
There was no sense that the petit fours had been given any less thought and care. Jasmine may sound like a strange flavour to add to fudge, until you try it and realise that it's exactly what fudge has been missing all these years. And don't ask me to relay precisely what was inside these little chocolate swirls - possibly some kind of nut mousse, maybe nougat - but, of course, they were also brilliant.
Of course, posts like these are hardly going to change anyone's minds. Those who fell in love with Roganic as I did when it exploded onto the scene back in 2011 will have already put a mark in their diary to visit the new incarnation, and will no doubt have visited l'Enclume as many times as their bank balance would allow in the meantime. Similarly, those friends (I use the term loosely) who dismissed Roganic as pretentious overpriced nonsense back then still won't be convinced by any of my adoration and will be quite happy continuing to ignore it. More fool them.
But for those lucky enough to be tuned-in on the Rogan wavelength, wow - wow you're in for a treat. Because this, essentially, is why we choose to spend our money eating out; to be dazzled, to be entertained, to be utterly charmed by a team of people who give the impression their entire purpose on this planet is to make you happy. From top to bottom, across every inch of this charming Marylebone location, it is as close to perfect as I can imagine a restaurant can be. Welcome back, Roganic. 10/10
Imagine how difficult it must be to launch, and run, a really, really good gastropub. In fact, you don't even need to imagine - just look at how few there are anywhere. If it was really that easy to fashion yourself a Rat Inn, or Parkers Arms, or Sportsman, do you not think there'd be one on every high street in any small town in the country? Each full of happy families eating local, seasonal food matched with interesting wines and a selection of local beers. We'd be spoiled for choice.
Well, we're not, and we're not because the sheer amount of things that need to go right, from finding a good site, fitting it out, finding suppliers, finding chefs, KPs, front of house and then finally designing a menu attractive enough to tempt in the punters, means that it's only a very few, very special places that can afford to be mentioned amongst the truly great. I've listed a few above, but for a more comprehensive roster of pubs that are very unlikely to let you down try the Morning Advertiser Top 50 Gastropubs, a far more reliable indicator of a good feed than any number of Michelin stars, and also one with a happy lack of London bias.
I mention the above because the scale of Henry Harris and business partner James McCulloch's achievement in setting up the Coach in Clerkenwell cannot be overstated. Already, in its first few weeks, it's raced to the top of my personal list of restaurants in London, a beautifully refurbished space serving a supremely attractive menu of classy French-English dishes, for a perfectly reasonable amount of money. By anyone's standards, this is a fantastic gastropub.
But Harris and McCulloch aren't stopping there. Believe it or not, these over-achievers are launching not just the Coach but two other top-flight gastropubs at the same time - the Three Cranes Tavern in the city, and the Truscott Arms (soon to be renamed) in Maida Vale, each serving the kind of refined, thoughful cuisine Harris is known for and promising to raise the average standard of food in the capital by a good few notches all by themselves.
I'm yet to visit the Three Cranes or the Truscott Arms, but thanks to it being about 10 minutes walk from the office I have been to the Coach three times for lunch, and can recommend everything I've eaten. This is onion and ale soup topped with cheese on toast, sort of a vegetarian version of French Onion soup but you hardly miss the beef stock at all. Glossy and rich with caramelised onion flavour, with a hint of alcohol from the ale, it would be a perfect warming winter treat even without the chunks of cheesy sourdough to chase around.
This was the greatest rabbit dish I can remember eating in many years, and though admittedly that's partly due to the standard of rabbit dishes in London being generally pretty poor, it was still a wonderful thing to behold. Utterly perfectly timed on the charcoal so that every last corner of the flesh was as moist and tender as possible, it was sat on a silky-smooth mustard-butter (I think) sauce and greens to soak up all of the juices. Oh, and two delicate slivers of crisp, flame-touched bacon that almost dissolved in the mouth they were so translucently thin.
The Coach cheeseburger is a solid new top-5 entry in the London burger charts, and has an interesting development story. After coming up with the usual arrangement of meat, cheese, tomato and lettuce bound with various condiments, Harris offered it to his son, whose immediate response was to say "get rid of everything apart from the meat and cheese". What they've ended up with then, is a thing of stripped-back, stark beauty, relying on the insanely good beef from butcher HG Walter with a decadent loose texture and a slice of bubbly raclette cheese. A further concession to fancypantsness is a bun glazed with bone marrow butter, but this doesn't distract from the beef, just adds an extra mysterious meaty note. It's a seriously brilliant burger.
Mussels in a thick bacon, leek and cider cream sauce came with a generous portion of the same excellent chips (bistro style - not too thick, not too thin) that arrived with the cheeseburger, and made another comfort-blanket of a winter dish.
And rhubarb meringue was the one dessert I've managed to find room for so far, but was, like everything else, intelligently conceived and executed, with just the right amount of sweetness and cream alongside the stewed fruit.
Those lucky enough to have enjoyed Harris' food when he was in Knightsbridge will have no doubt been waiting for this latest venture - or rather, ventures - with huge anticipation. And long story short, if you loved him there you'll love him here, too - that same innate mastery of technique and ingredient knowhow is still very much in evidence even as the price points have significantly shrunk.
But more than that, the fact that Harris has managed to team up with a partner who seems more than capable of showcasing his talents across three venues simultaneously (Harris describes himself more as an Admiral of the Fleet than chef-director, but was in the kitchen on at least one of the days I visited) is a huge cause for optimism about a London dining scene that seems under fire on all sides lately from economic pressures, staff shortages and closures (did anybody say Brexit?). If this is where things are going, then we should all breathe a hugh sigh of relief, and thank Henry Harris and team for their risk and their considerable efforts. Not forgetting, of course, once you've done all that, to jolly well go and eat there too. 9/10
I've said before on this blog that the real measure of a healthy dining scene isn't what's going on in the multi Michelin-starred high-falutin' fine dining establishments, but instead what you get for £30-40/head with a glass or two of wine. Don't get me wrong, I love places like Moor Hall, and L'Enclume, and the Fat Duck, of course I do - you'd have to be missing a soul not to have the time of your life eating dinner there, assuming you can stomach the bill - but they exist in their own international jet set tier of restaurants, separate and apart from anywhere you'd just pop into of a cold Tuesday night because you didn't fancy cooking.
And the sad reality is, if you do look at the vast majority of high streets in towns and cities up and down the country, it's still grim pickings for the food-lover. Cookie-cutter Italians like Ask, Zizzi or Prezzo dominate, with fried chicken shops and Nando's taking up whatever grade A spaces are left. Some days, and in some towns, it seems we are further away than ever from having a healthy independent food scene and nothing can save us from the relentless March of the Chains.
So what can we, who care about eating out and eating well, do about all of this? Only to find your precious local gastropub or bistro, with its seasonal menu cooked by proper chefs who get up early to prep all the fresh ingredients themselves, and where it's all served by people who love what they do, and you give them your custom. And if you happen to find yourself in Kent, and need some inspiration for how to find such a place, well let me tell you about the Corner House in Canterbury.
The menu at the Corner House is familiar and comforting as a hug from an old friend. This is, of course, exactly how it should be - you can't win hearts and minds by being stubborn when it comes to traditional gastropub favourites. So there's pork scratchings and sausage rolls, roast sirloin and Yorkshire puddings. There's triple-cooked chips, and braised shoulder of lamb for two. There is, in short, something for everyone, and judging by the happy mix of young and old we sat with on Sunday, they know their audience well.
Starters all looked worth ordering, but after much deliberation we ended up with chicken liver parfait (usually a good litmus test of a kitchen) and venison carpaccio. The venison had a good gamey flavour, was seasoned well, and was dotted with an intelligent selection of seasonal bits and pieces, including parsnip "fries" and puréed beetroot. It brought to mind a similar dish made up in Lancashire at the Parkers Arms, and as the Parkers is one of the very best restaurants in the country, that's about as big a compliment as I can pay.
The parfait, sweet and fluffy with a luxurious meaty flavour, came topped with an interesting port jelly, which dissolved in the mouth and complimented the liver perfectly. My friend, a chef, wants it to be known that she thought the parfait was a bit too sweet, but I didn't at all and I'm writing the review so there.
The main course presented a dilemma. Ordinarily, custom on these review trips would dictate that in order to sample as much of the menu as possible, I and my dining companion would choose different dishes for each course. Unfortunately, the existence of a game suet pudding on the menu provoked a short but... intense discussion on the subject of who should do the right thing and order the cod, or polenta, or beef, or something I mean come on, and with neither side being willing to compromise (I mean it's not like she should be grateful for a free weekend trip to Canterbury but you'd think it might have registered as a factor) we ended up with a suet pudding each. Fortunately, they were pretty much perfect - stuffed full of pigeon, pheasant and partridge with a glossy game jus, and extremely impressive work with the suet. Oh, and lovely buttery mash to go with it, too.
Someone really knows their pastry at the Corner House, because the desserts conspired to be even more impressive than the savouries. Upside down pear & ginger cake (beautifully balanced sweetness and fruit flavour) came with a honeycomb ice cream so rich it had somehow developed tones of woodsmoke alongside the caramel.
And tonka bean creme brulee had a great texture contrast between the crunch of the sugar glaze and a supremely clean, smooth custard, topped with some chunks of delicate poached pear. Yes, perhaps each of the desserts could have done with one fewer flourish amongst the toppings, but these were still superb examples of the pastry section's craft. Seriously impressive stuff.
This being an invite, we didn't see a bill but doing a quick bit of maths now I don't think the total (with a bottle of wine and a gin & tonic) would have pushed much north of £40/head, which puts it firmly in that category of Good Local Restaurant I mentioned earlier. We need as many places like this as possible, on high streets up and down the country, and we need people to know about them and spend their money at them, to save Britain from Chain Hell. One day every small town could have a Corner House, and wouldn't that be wonderful?
I was invited to the Corner House, and didn't see a bill. Immaculately specced rooms upstairs start at £79/night, which seems like a bargain to me. Also Canterbury is achingly pretty, and well worth a trip.
It's a sign of just how old I and my peer group in London are getting that meals in fancy new restaurants often begin with a period of reminiscing about the previous use - or uses - of the building we happen to find ourselves in. I remember this particular spot on City Road, when I worked in the area in around 2008, being home to an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet, but my dining companion last night's knowledge of the area stretches back even further, to when it was apparently a grim, bare-bones nightclub with blacked-out windows and murky reputation. That was when you'd occasionally catch Noel Fielding in the Dragon Bar just over the road, and a pint cost £4. Yes, that far back.
Anyway, in the now-almost-unrecognisable Silicon Roundabout, up pops Nuala, as flashy and "designed" as befits the area but with a welcome as warm and kind as an Irish mammy. Yes, Nuala takes a certain inspiration from the Emerald Isle as head chef Niall Davidson (formerly of, well, lots of places but most recently Chiltern Firehouse) hails from there, but the menu is far from traditional and has rather more Dalston than Dalkey about it. The friendliness and charm of the front of house, though, seems very Irish.
From "Snacks" (you'll know how the menu is organised if you've eaten at another cutting-edge British-Irish restaurant, the Dairy, in the last few years) we tried cod's roe crackers, superb smooth, salty tarama on top of delicate corn crisps, and neat discs of home made soda bread, sweet and soft, topped with shavings of foie gras and enchanting ribbons of preserved clementine.
"Crab salad in chilled cucumber broth" performed the intricate task of balancing white and brown crab meat utterly perfectly - just enough brown to have that earthy umami kick, sweetened with just the right amount of white - and the "broth" - in fact more like a gel - had a clean, defined cucumber taste. It was the kind of crab dish you always hope to find on a menu like this, but it's by no means a given that every kitchen can pull it off. Nuala managed it though.
Then the best sweetbreads I can remember eating in a long time. Huge, beautiful things, glazed with a superb meaty jus and without a hint of the mealiness that can affect lesser examples, they would have been astonishingly successful even without the "cauliflower rarebit", rich and smokey from the open grill, which accompanied them. Much like the crab dish, you hope when you see something like this on a menu it will live up to the promise, but only very rarely is it realised quite so brilliantly.
Rabbit is another tricky meat to get right - cooked well, it can be lean and gamey without being dry, but I've lost count of the number of times I've been presented with vaguely rabbity lumps of cotton wool, in otherwise even quite accomplished restaurants. Needless to say, at Nuala they know what they're doing with a bit of bunny, and a lovely grilled leg was presented alongside a couple of medallions of stuffed loin, all of it beautifully moist. Chunks of salt-baked celeriac sat in a subtle cream sauce studded with samphire, and added up to a very rewarding plate of food indeed.
Even superficially more straightforward dishes had plenty to recommend them. True, rump is often a chewier cut of cow, ordered often with the tacit understanding that whatever you lose in texture you'll gain in taste. And yes, although it took a bit of chewing, the taste from this beautiful bit of steak, Torloisk Highland cattle cooked to medium-rare over the coals and funky with a good deal of dry-aging, was well worth the effort and then some. This producer is a new one to me, but I will certainly be looking out for it on menus in the future.
It's at this point in lesser restaurants, whether the savoury courses had been mediocre or even quite good, that, sated and slowing, we'd pay up and leave. However we were having such a blast at Nuala that not only did we not dash home after mains but, having come to the conclusion that this kitchen could basically do no wrong, we decided to order all the desserts. So, a char-grilled pineapple, delicately filleted and arranged into a pretty yellow rose was joined by a quenelle of buttermilk/lime sorbet...
...pumpkin ice cream boasted a fantastic sliky-smooth texture that only the very best home made ice cream has, and a chocolate and coffee affair had a nice big caffeine kick paired with cool, light dairy. All of it was polished off so thoroughly they could have re-used the artful stoneware without use of a pot-washer.
There's a lot of pessmism blowing aroud the London restaurant scene lately. Some of it, no doubt, is well-founded; the effect Brexit will have on our ability to attract quality talent from Europe and the world is yet to be quantified, and ingredient inflation is already making things very difficult for Spanish and Italian restaurants (and many others) who import much of their menus. But however easy it is to succumb to fear and despair, and however much the following months and years may give us reason to do so, it seems London's restaurants, for now, have decided to just sod it all and carry on being brilliant anyway. So, the best advice I can give is to make a booking at Nuala immediately and make the bloody most of it. 9/10
In 2005 I moved to Battersea and, for a while, there was nowhere decent nearby to eat. Actually, that's not strictly true - the Greyhound on Battersea High St had a decent stab at being a sort of Antipodean gastropub for a while, though they'd perhaps misjudged the area's level of gentrification at the time as I distinctly remember being pelted with gravel by a gang of feral youths as I attempted to dine al fresco. Sadly the Greyhound and, less sadly, the youths, moved on.
A little later, the Fox and Hounds on Latchmere Road became our go-to local, and for a while was notable as the only pub in the area that refused to serve a burger and/or chips. Indeed, it still serves a mainly Italian selection of dishes (burrata, risotto, pasta) although sadly (again...) the standard of food dipped quite heavily when a certain chef quit around 2008 and is now really only worth visiting for the lovely beer garden out back. They now do a burger. With chips.
You can imagine my delight, then, when Mien Tay opened in 2009. on Lavender Hill. In stark contrast to the collection of half-assed pizza/kebab joints, fish & chip shops and bland curry houses that were their neighbours on this unlovely stretch of road, Mien Tay was a Proper Vietnamese Restaurant, serving fresh summer rolls, honey-glazed quail dipped in lime and salt and sizzling plates of spiced lamb and fried onions, in a cosy (if not always comfortable - blimey they love to keep those radiators on full blast) family-run space. It was - and crucially still is - a great little restaurant, and I go all the time.
Mien Tay could, I'm sure, have used their acquisition of one of the aforementioned half-assed fish & chip shops next door (it was called Salisbury's, if you care, which you shouldn't) as a kind of Mien Tay spillover, as the mothership quite understandably gets so slammed on weekday evenings. Instead, the concept is something genuinely new to London - a fiercely authentic (or so I'm led to believe) replica of the kind of grill restaurant you'd find in South West Vietnam, complete with laminated menus full of offal, seafood and grilled meats, and enough unusual eye-catching specialities to make any blogger's head spin.
As a blogger, then, and therefore someone with a compulsive habit of ordering the most unusual items on any given menu whether I think I'll like it or not, we started with chicken gizzards. These were, as chicken gizzards always are, quite alarmingly crunchy and without a great deal of flavour, although the fruit/lime dip they came with was lovely and it was all clearly very well done, at least as much as gizzards can be. I'm not going to complain about ordering chicken gizzards and then being given chicken gizzards, because that would be deeply unfair. If you love chicken gizzards, these are the chicken gizzards for you.
But what came next was much more to our tastes. Bivalves and cheese is a pairing that has a certain resonance in Western cooking - oysters "Rockefeller" is a steakhouse starter staple - but here, treated to a cleverly balanced sauce and grilled just to the point where they're hot but the oysters themselves are plump and full of briney flavour, the match makes even more perfect sense. Apparently these delicacies are sold roadside in the region of Vietnam called (what else) Mien Tay, and their successful reproduction in London relies on only the largest oysters being available from Billingsgate. It's dishes like this, something (as far as I know) genuinely new on our shores that must have taken a certain amount of bravery to add to a menu in SW11 in 2018, that make you thank the stars that at least not everyone is running shy from innovation. A gamble for them, and us, that paid off wonderfully.
Lamb chops were somewhat more straightforward but hardly less enjoyable. Pink inside and touched with a charcoal char, they were listed with the suggestion "try with our sticky rice cakes" and so having ordered said rice cakes separately we were surprised to find the chops came with them anyway. So we ended up with quite a few rice cakes. Still, they were nice rice cakes so no harm done.
House pickles were excellent, particularly lemongrass which had a heavenly aromatic flavour perfectly offset by a sweet brine, and some sticks of turnip which had a pungent, complex character all of their own. Even more than places that make their own bread, I increasingly find that restaurants that do their own house pickling, brining and fermenting have their efforts rewarded tenfold. This was top pickle work.
Of course, we couldn't ignore the banh mi section of the menu and so ordered the "traditional" as a good test of their sandwich abilities. Filled with cracklingly fresh herbs, with more of those super house pickles and containing a generous amount of salty, smoky pork, this was about as good an example of this kind of thing as I've had in many a year. Even the bread was just right, fragile enough to allow complete satisfying bites containing all the filling, without sacrificing any structural integrity. I may have mentioned how close this places is to my house, but crucially it's also directly on my commute home from work. I see lots of banh mi in my future.
The bill for two people, with four beers and an extra banh mi to go (well why not) came to £56, perhaps not as bargain-basement cheap as Mien Tay was in its early years but still fantastic value for careful, fun, innovative cooking of this level. Yes, thirteen years after I moved to Battersea of course I wish there were more, and better places to eat in the area, but when somewhere like this comes along that allows me, even for a while, to ignore the other dross on Lavender Hill and pretend I live a few steps away from the foodie hub of Kingsland Road, well, they have my eternal gratitude. Any curious Londoner should find something to challenge and excite them in Mrs Le's Banh Mi and Grill; for local Battersea residents though, this is something very special indeed. 8/10
Well, we survived. This time in 2016 I was typing with trembling fingers in the aftermath of Brexit and Trump, unsure of what it meant for the health of the UK's restaurant industry and the continued survival of the human species generally. I still don't know exactly how things will play out (if you do, for the love of God let someone in authority know), but though I still do occasionally wake up screaming at night, cutting the TV news out of my morning routine and blocking anyone with a flag next to their name on Twitter has helped with the panic attacks. I can thoroughly recommend doing both.
And to be fair, so far - so far - life appears to continue somewhat as normal. From the pace, and quality, of new restaurants appearing over the last twelve months you wouldn't know Armageddon in any form looms in the next couple of years, and whether this is simply rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic or a genuine belief amongst restaurateurs that things will indeed be OK In The End, well, the effect is the same - lots of genuinely brilliant places to eat, in London and all up and down the country. So, without further ado...
Best Newcomer (London) - Xu
A huge amount of competition for Best Newcomer this year - again - so I've decided to split the category into inside and outside the M25. Runner-up mentions must go to Jamavar, a swanky restaurant in Mayfair which continues to push the possibilities of high-end Indian cuisine and serves food of such exquisite flavour and precision that it almost makes you forget the prices you're paying for it. Also, just nipping in at the end of 2017 is Parsons, which manages to be some kind of platonic ideal of the seafood restaurant. Great ingredients, treated well, served at a decent mark-up. Nothing much not to love.
But overall, the best new restaurant needs not to merely be good, but groundbreaking. Xu serves the kind of food I'd not seen before in London - high-end Taiwanese - and is as good as ambassador for it as you can possibly imagine. Flavours are bold, but balanced, and full of interesting twists and turns; presentations are as careful and geometric as architecture, colourful and clever; and you'll enjoy it all in a cosy, clubby space that makes the most of its small Chinatown footprint. I'm baffled that not everyone loves the place; maybe they just don't deserve to be happy.
Best Newcomer (outside London) - Where The Light Gets In
If someone had told me when I was growing up in North Merseyside/West Lancashire - a part of the country that could charitably be described as "beige" - that there would one day exist there a Michelin-starred fine dining modern British restaurant in the l'Enclume vein, set in acres of kitchen gardens and with its own cheese and charcuterie rooms, I'd have assumed you were as detatched from reality and sense as the customers I regularly served at the Ormskirk Abbey National during my teens. But there Moor Hall is anyway, and I somewhat suspect despite its location rather than because of it, it's utterly wonderful.
But wonderful though Moor Hall is, there's a bright little spot in Stockport that somehow managed to upstage even that temple of gastronomic achievement. Where The Light Gets In is everything that's good, and decent, and rewarding about eating out in this country, all in one beautiful package. The food served is exciting and technically proficient without being difficult; they wear their environmental waste-free credentials on their sleeves without being preachy or - crucially - without the product suffering at all, in fact if anything it seems to make more sense that certain ingredients crop up in various different forms throughout the menu. But mainly it's just impossible to sit down for dinner here and not have the time of your life.
Best Restaurant 2017 - The Holborn Dining Rooms
First, some runners up. I split the newcomers category into London/Outside London mainly because I wanted the excuse to list more places, but in all honesty there's no point any longer in pretending that Not London needs any kind of advantage any more. Anyone who's ever eaten at any of the restaurants immediately above, or at the glorious Parkers Arms serving ingredients gathered from the surrounding fields, or the Rat Inn with their giant, generous hug of a menu of seasonal beauty, or indeed the magical Coomebshead Farm with its mangalitza pigs and rural idyll, will conclude that these are just as deserving of national attention as anywhere down south. We are all the richer for their existence, but residents of Lancashire and Northumberland and Cornwall in particular should be intensely proud of these gems on their doorstep.
And so too at l'Enclume, which is still the standard-bearer of modern British food, and where far from settling for their two Michelin stars and international fame have expanded their test kitchen Aulis into London, expanded their horticulture and animal husbandry operations up in Cartmel, and drawn up plans to have a kind of California-style outdoor BBQ operation in the middle of their farm (can you imagine how much fun that will be).
But as much fun as I've had at these places, my overall favourite restaurant of 2017 is closer to home. Closer to home, and closer to work - about 30 seconds walk from the office, in fact. You'll have heard all about Calum Franklin's wonderful pastry work, and I imagine your Instagram feeds have, like mine, been enriched with his mahogany brown pâté en croûtes and gleaming game pithiviers. You probably feel like you know his work inside out, even if you've never been to Holborn. But there are two points worth making while I have your attention.
Firstly, these extraordinary examples of savoury pastry work taste even better than they look - this is by no means a purely visual endeavour. The jelly that binds the meat is packed full of flavour and dissolves in the mouth to silky, porky heaven, and the ingredients (pork, duck, rabbit, whatever he thinks will work) are top notch. Secondly, while it's true that certain hotel staples that lurk on the menu are mainly to keep the tourists happy (the burger is a bit half-hearted), Franklin has gradually been shaping the menu to his own image over the years and there are some real non-pastry gems to be found now as well. Try the lobster thermidor tart, or the octopus, or the elderflower jelly dessert - all of which are outstanding, superb advertisements for British food both in that gleaming dining room and, via Instagram, the wider world.
While the grand Rosewood hotel on High Holborn has, it's true, had a lot of my custom this year because it's so handy, I suppose it could be argued that gave them something of an unfair advantage. On the other hand, the fact I go there so bloody often and have a consistently wonderful time (the staff are so friendly you'll want to invite them home for Christmas) is testament to just how impressive an operation this is. It's the most Cheese and Biscuits stress-tested restaurant in London, and I still look forward to going back every time. So, last year's runner up is this year's winner. And thoroughly deserved, I'm sure you'll agree.
So, where do we go from here? Time was I'd use this opportunity to make some grand prediction about the future of London dining, or what crazy new trend or fusion experiment I hope to see the next time the Just Opened newsletter (subscribe here) drops in my inbox. I have a wishlist of places I need to get round to - Clipstone, Westerns Laundry, even Le Gavroche still eludes me. And I'd like to visit a few more super-gastropubs up in Lancashire; the Freemasons at Wiswell, and the Swan at Fence to name but two.
But you know what? In the current climate I have a horrible feeling planning anything much at all would be tempting fate; I'll settle for continued survival. So I'll just say thanks to all of you for reading, and following, and sharing, and making whatever contribution - large or small - to the joy of eating out in the UK, for however long it may continue. Happy Christmas.
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